24 hours at the world's busiest airport

By CNN StaffUpdated 22nd November 2013
Airports are gateways to journeys, not the final stop. But for 24 hours, we made the world's busiest airport our destination -- and discovered a world with its own culture, marketplace and transit system, people who make it hum, even a taste of the exotic. In other words, much like the places we visit or hope to see.
On August 28, from 12:01 a.m. to midnight, more than three dozen journalists descended on Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. We found moments of love and loss, hope and suspense, echoes of war -- both on the ground and in the sky. It's a city within a city that's a second home to 58,000 workers and a fleeting stop for the 95 million passengers whose nearly 1 million annual arrivals and departures earn the airport its "world's busiest" distinction.
This story is a sampling of the full "ATL24" project. To check out the entire interactive experience, we invite you to visit CNN.com/ATL24 on a computer, tablet or phone web browser. Here's some of what we saw that day.
CNN takes you inside the world's busiest airport, covering every aspect of its people, operations and hidden spaces.
Weddings, funerals and celebrations: Airports are passageways to life's biggest moments. Along with overstuffed bags, laptops and treasured souvenirs, travelers carry joy and heartache.
'This is our hour' -- 11:08 a.m
Cheri Anne Hummel's cheeks are rosy and her eyes are red. She's been awake since 3 a.m. for her early morning flight from Denver.
She pushes a stroller through the arrivals area of Atlanta's Domestic Terminal and carries her daughter, Ruby, in a BabyBjorn.
The baby was named for her great-grandmother, Ruby Dunn Black, who cradled her for the first time last week.
Now they're heading back to Cheri Anne's hometown of Thomaston, Georgia, this time for Black's funeral. It's tough to fly with a baby, but Cheri Anne says she wanted her daughter to be there with her.
Her eyes tear up as she remembers her grandmother: "She's just always been such an influential person in my life."
It's a sad time. But Cheri Anne's cousin, Kathryn Ozley, has been smiling for the past 30 minutes as she waits. As soon as she sees Cheri Anne, she sprints forward and throws her arms around her. They're more like sisters, she says, and she's looking forward to the drive from the airport back to Thomaston. It's a trek they've made together at least 10 times before.
"This is our hour," she says, "of nobody but me and her."
The bar where anything is possible -- 3:56 p.m.
"When I say tomahawk, you say chop! Tomahawk!"
The call-and-response at Atlanta Braves All Star Grill on Concourse D is led by bar manager Saundra Cage, who's been serving and raising spirits in the airport for 15 years.
Between pours of wine, beer and frozen margaritas, she says she's played therapist, bonded with regulars and waited on stars. Hulk Hogan, Jane Fonda and the late Whitney Houston are the first to come to mind.
If a traveler arrives who has already had too much to drink, Cage might comp that person an order of fries. If a military service member takes a seat, she knows someone else will inevitably pick up the tab. If a customer is rude, she reminds herself that everyone has a story.
Cage once comforted a woman who was flying to visit her sick mother and comforted her again when the woman returned en route to bury her.
Then there was the traveler who sat nearby at Christmastime, broke up with his girlfriend by phone and told an unsuspecting customer that he'd give her a gift in exchange for a hug. One quick hug later, as the man walked out the door, the customer opened a box to find a pair of $5,000 Tiffany diamond earrings.
Cage smiles, remembering another two strangers whose encounter in the bar turned into something more. The man invited the woman to join him on a journey to Los Angeles, rather than catching her flight to New York. When she said yes, he bought her a ticket on the spot.
"Anything is possible here," Cage says.
Returning to the Isle of Hope -- 6:25 p.m.
Shannon Nevin laughs and plays with her two stuffed animals, a pink Peppa Pig and Rory the Tiger. She beats them against an empty chair.
The 4-year-old is the only one in her family full of energy after an overseas flight, and she's ready for the next leg, to Savannah, Georgia. The family is making a return trip to the Isle of Hope.
Hope is what Shannon's parents, Craig and Penny, had been holding out for.
In 2010, Penny learned she had a rare gastrointestinal cancer. After three operations and six invasive procedures, the 36-year-old was given the all-clear in spring 2012.
Three months later, she and Craig traveled from their home in the heart of England to the picturesque coastal Georgia community to get married.
This time they're celebrating their first anniversary and their good fortune.
"My favorite place in the world to be is the Isle of Hope," says Craig, 38.
Their first choice of wedding venue was a church on Tybee Island featured in the movie "The Last Song," about a teen romance and a parent's struggle with cancer. But the church had moved, so Penny's brother, who lives in the area, suggested a church in nearby Isle of Hope instead.
And "hope" really seemed to fit. Shannon was a flower girl; Penny's older daughter, Kayley, 20, was a bridesmaid. The whole family, including Penny's father, Donald, is along for the anniversary trip.
They played a song from the film "The Last Song" at their wedding, and Penny has brought along a copy of the novel.
It's a story that resonates as they make their way back to a cherished place.
They clean the carpets, floors and toilets. They serve you that much-needed drink between flights, and then release you to those who ferry you safely through the air. They make the airport work.
'I just love doing bathrooms' -- 3:52 a.m.
Anita Daniel slips on a pair of goggles, grapples with the hose of a vacuum machine and wheels it into an empty men's bathroom on Concourse T. She flips the switch, and the machine rumbles to life, sounding like a tugboat's foghorn.
Daniel has been cleaning bathrooms at the airport for seven years. It's 3:52 a.m. and she's deep into her 10:45 p.m. to 6:45 a.m. shift.
"I just love doing bathrooms, '' she says. " I really do. It's peaceful. I'm here by myself."
Even when she is surrounded by travelers, Daniel can feel alone. Men will often ignore her cleaning signs and barge into the bathroom while she's there.
"They can be very disrespectful," she says. "I'm a lady. And I clean men's bathrooms. I don't have a choice because that's my job. They will walk in on me, and see me and go right on in and use the bathroom. No respect. And then they look at you like you're invading their privacy."
She has a ritual to channel her anger. She tells the rude men what she thinks of them -- after they leave the bathroom.
"I just do it in private," she says. "I just mumble to myself."
She doesn't have those problems with women.
"Some of the nicest people are women," Daniel says. "They'll see me working and tell me how nice a job I'm doing and thank me for keeping everything clean. That makes you feel good, for someone to compliment you on your work."
Daniel's mother, Louise, also worked for a cleaning service and taught her to do her best. "It can get nasty," she says, "but I'm used to it. I used to be a weak-stomach person but once I started cleaning bathrooms, that went away."
The work may not be glamorous, but Daniel says there is dignity in all work.
"I just don't understand people who don't work," she says. "How do you live as a human being and don't work? I've been working since I was 18, and now I'm 52. I'm a hard-working person."
And a lady.
A place where knives are allowed -- 11:30 a.m.
Mixologist Tiffanie Barriere is behind the bar at One Flew South on Concourse E, muddling a sugar cube with angostura bitters for an Old Fashioned cocktail.
These days, she says, flying has an edge. "Everybody needs a drink. It just calms you down."
One Flew South opened five years ago as the first fine-dining option at the world's busiest airport. Esquire magazine named it one of the best bars in America, while Food & Wine called it "Airport Food Worth Flying For."
Barriere says the restaurant has a loyal following. Some customers book a layover in Atlanta so they can dine here; others place carryout orders as soon as they are allowed to make calls after landing.
If travelers order a bottle of wine but aren't able to finish it, the restaurant will cork and bag it for them to enjoy later. If you can take your soda to go, why not a bottle of wine?
Executive chef Duane Nutter says operating a fine-dining establishment in an airport has its challenges. Kitchen space is limited, and knives must be tethered for security reasons.
Working at One Flew South "was the first time I ever cut myself in the thigh," Nutter says.
The restaurant became the first in the airport to offer customers metal cutlery. It had to be TSA-approved.
And "knife audits" happen regularly. They're carefully counted to make sure none goes missing.
He has to be on his game -- 12:19 p.m.
Ron Levitz bounds into the hallway outside the AirTran flight lounge. A trim man with the build of a distance runner and a close-cropped haircut, Levitz radiates energy. The AirTran pilot once worked at assorted office jobs.
"I hated it," he says.
Flying is his first love. When he was a boy, he actually got goose bumps the first time he watched a plane take off. But translating his love into a career took years.
The competition for a pilot's job at a major airline is fierce. The flying schedule and benefits are good, Levitz says, and a pilot can make up to $200,000 a year.
There's also the sheer fun of flying.
Good pilots can't live in the moment -- they have to anticipate what may happen in five minutes or 10.
"There's no flight that's the same," he says. "Every time I get in the airplane, it makes me think. It makes me evaluate. It keeps me on my toes. You're never bored. Every time you go to work, you're challenged."
Has he ever faced a close call? Been nervous in the cockpit?
"Absolutely," he says. "There's not a pilot who would tell you otherwise. There are times when you have a situation in the cockpit when something malfunctions or there's weather-related delays, like snow or fog. You have to really be on your game."
Pilots must be fit as well. They must pass rigorous medical exams every six months and take extensive flight simulator tests each year.
Levitz started flying at 19 and has no plans to stop.
"Most of the pilots out there have a passion for their job," he says. "If you don't love it, you couldn't do this job, because you're away from home a lot and there are so many things you have to put up with."
He wouldn't have it any other way.
"There are some days when I'm flying that I just look out of the window and I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
A secret shop -- 4:45 p.m.
You've seen it happen on airport concourses: captains and flight attendants briskly disappearing behind mysterious doors with keypad entries.
Behind one of those doors on Concourse A is a concrete staircase that leads down to the Flight Station.
It looks like any other airport souvenir shop until you take a closer look at the items for sale: captain's hats and shirts with various numbers of stripes, which can only be purchased by crew members who can show proof of rank; luggage tassels labeled "crew" with different airport codes; and books, jewelry and model airplanes made by airline staff and crew.
Delta flight attendant Jennifer Reason stops in to pick up a pair of stockings and a can opener before she boards a flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico. She needs the stockings because the pair she was wearing caught a run; the can opener is to help her pop open beverages during the flight, because after years of doing it without a tool, her hand hurts.
"Occupational hazard," she says, smiling, as she digs out her wallet from her bag.
He's cursed himself -- 8:12 p.m.
He tells people to keep their eyes on their luggage. He nags them about the boarding sequence. He orders them to pick up their tired bones and schlep to a different gate.
"All that annoying stuff -- well, that's me," says Tony Messano, of Alpharetta, Georgia, whose voice can be heard in Delta terminals across the globe.
It's 8:12 p.m., and travelers to Buenos Aires are being treated to a gate announcement by Messano.
"Flight 101 with service to Buenos Aires," his recorded voice tells everyone, is "departing concourse E as in echo, gate 8."
Messano has been doing voice-over work for 25 years. He's recorded numbers, the names of destinations, and gate letters so that any variation can be pieced together on a computer to make the necessary announcements.
He says he's cursed himself when his voice told him to move for a gate change. And he's gotten the stink eye from his own wife. They were in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, sitting at their gate having a nice conversation, when his voice kept butting in.
"She gives me a glare like 'Stop interrupting me,'" he says. "And I'm like 'Well, it's me, but it's not me.'"
These days his voice is being tested for use with similar technology in the New York City subway system.
If he lands that job, he says, "I imagine it'll involve a lot of cursing and screaming at the top of my lungs instead of the gentle prodding I do for Delta."
Messano, though, isn't the only one making announcements in Delta terminals. At alternate gates, a female voice addresses travelers.
It belongs to Susan Bennett of Sandy Springs, Georgia, who used to be the voice of the Plane Train. She got into this work in the 1970s by accident. She was a jingle singer, showed up for a job, and the voice-over talent was a no-show. Bennett, who still sings and is in a band, was asked to fill in.
Now her voice can be heard at Delta gates worldwide. She can also be heard in commercials, on GPS systems and on company phone systems.
Bennett's biggest claim to fame? In America, she is the original voice of Siri, the Apple iPhone's virtual personal assistant. CNN revealed Bennett's alter ego earlier this fall.
"I end up talking to myself quite a lot," she says.
Does she ever yell at herself?
"No," she answers. "I don't want to hurt my feelings."
From awkward farewells to heartfelt hellos, departures and arrivals create little bursts of fanfare. And in Atlanta, where 70% of travelers are catching connecting flights to their final destinations, time-killing strategies are many and varied.
For the love of a son -- 2:20 a.m.
Denise Sardinha wasn't supposed to be here, sitting all alone in front of gate F10 in the middle of the night.
She should be asleep in her San Francisco home, getting ready to send her 7-year-old son, David, to his first day of school in the morning. Instead, she is 2,400 miles away, waiting to pick up her boy after a booking mishap sent her scrambling across the country.
"He was visiting his dad in the middle part of Brazil," says Sardinha, who is also Brazilian. "Because he's 7, he's not supposed to have a connecting flight."
Sardinha thought she had resolved that problem by paying a $100 unaccompanied minor fee, but after she booked she found out that Delta won't allow connecting flights for children under the age of 8 traveling alone.
So she had to take two days off work from her housecleaning business and jump on a four-hour flight to Atlanta to meet her son and accompany him to San Francisco. David, meanwhile, had to miss his previously scheduled flight and wait another day.
"I wasn't happy at all. He starts school tomorrow," Sardinha says. "Then I felt better flying with him to San Francisco because that made him feel more secure."
She's been sitting at the Atlanta airport for five hours, with another three hours to go until she sees her son. Before this trip, the longest she'd gone without being with him is two days. Now, it's been two months.
She passes the time watching clips of the recent MTV Video Music Awards on her laptop. And behind the weary look on her face is the excitement of a mother who can't wait to embrace her little boy.
Heaven must wait -- 9:30 p.m.
As passengers pour off the escalators into the arrivals lobby during a busy night-time rush, Nar Lungali leans on an empty luggage cart, picks up his phone and starts dialing.
"She is not coming today," he says, talking with one family member after another.
The case aide waiting with him from the International Rescue Committee just told him his older sister's flight from Chicago was canceled.
The hot meal waiting for her in nearby Clarkston, known to some as the Ellis Island of Georgia because of the large number of refugees who land there, will have to wait. Fried chicken and rice. "Delicious, spicy food," he says — the kind of meal that will make his sister feel at home, even more than 8,000 miles away from their native Bhutan.
It was only two days ago that she called from Kathmandu and told him she was moving from Nepal to America with her husband and two sons.
"She was so excited," he says. He could hear it in her voice.
He's excited, too. He hasn't seen her in more than two years. He can't wait to talk to her about how old friends left behind in the Beldangi 2 camp in eastern Nepal are doing.
Tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees live in Nepalese camps. But nearly 80,000 have left in the past six years as part of a resettlement push to move them into better living conditions.
Now — finally — his sister is among them. And he'll come back to the airport tomorrow to welcome her.
Standing here, watching passengers stream by, he remembers the day he first came to Atlanta more than two years ago on a flight from New York after leaving Nepal. The memory of the airport is still fresh in his mind. "So many people," he says.
He smiles, thinking of the way his life began to change that day, the way his sister's life will change now, too. For him, the difference between life in the United States and Nepal is clear.
"It's just like heaven," he says, "and hell."
A sign of love -- 11:59 p.m.
John Mann slumps next to a trash can in the back of the roped-off arrivals area, fiddling with his cell phone. Traffic flowed better than expected, and now he's stuck with time to kill, waiting with a bright orange poster on his lap.
"Welcome Home Susie," it says, with "I ♥ U!" scribbled in one corner.
John first met Susie when they were 9 years old, performing in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland."
She was Alice. He was the Cheshire Cat.
Decades later and a continent apart, they reconnected on Facebook. They started talking every night, then visiting each other on weekends. She moved to Seattle, where he lived. He proposed to her on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010, hanging a sign over the fireplace that said "Will You Marry Me?" She said yes.
They're married now, and they haven't been apart long. Susie's been away from their suburban Atlanta home for just a few days, helping her mom move to Houston. But John knows it's been a tough week, and he wants to make her smile.
This sort of moment plays out at all hours in the world's busiest airport. Amid the rush, the chaos, the flow of foot traffic, there are anticipated reunions, dreaded farewells and human exchanges — big and small — while people wait.
Susie had always wanted someone to hold up a sign for her at the airport. But John never had the courage. She is a trained singer and actress, the one who really knows how to shine onstage. He is a software developer — more of a behind-the-scenes guy. But yesterday, John decided he'd put himself out there. A kit of glitter and glue sticks and cut-out letters later, here he is.
"Making it was easy," he says, "but walking through the airport with it wasn't."
People stare. He avoids the glances and looks down at his phone.
Around 11:45 p.m., he checks online and sees that Southwest Flight 51 has landed. He springs into position, planting himself at the front of the arrivals waiting area. He props up the sign with one hand and stares intently at the escalators that bring throngs of passengers to baggage claim daily.
It's nearly midnight, though, and the escalators -- earlier packed with people -- now roll up mostly empty. There's a man in a business suit, a couple who look lost, but no sign of Susie.
John looks at his phone again, then gazes off in the distance, toward an empty gift shop.
Suddenly a sea of people surges up the escalators.
Susie steps off and wanders to the right, scanning the scattered clumps of people in front of her. Seeing no familiar faces, she turns to the left, walking a few steps forward.
The bright orange sign catches her eye, and she stops in her tracks. John is looking the other way.
But in a matter of seconds, their eyes meet. John flashes a Cheshire Cat grin. He stands up, looking proud. She walks toward him, beaming.
"I made your sign," he says. "I love you."
They're the invisible part of the airport, rarely seen but making it tick: They clear planes for takeoff, track storms, handle baggage, fuel aircraft and make sure that package you ordered online gets to your doorstep on time. Once you meet them, you'll never look at an airport the same way again.
The Plane Train takes a nap -- 3:36 a.m.
This is one of the few hours when the sweltering tunnel is relatively quiet. Usually it's a nonstop blur.
As many as 11 trains — each consisting of four 18-ton cars — shuttle about 235,000 passengers a day from terminals to concourses to baggage claim and back in a matter of minutes.
For now, the Plane Train is down for its nightly inspection.
That's when workers scour 4 miles of track for loose fixtures, faulty doors or the occasional cell phones, Barbie dolls or car keys dropped between platforms and trains.
"One woman left $5,000 of camera gear on the train," says Steve Poerschmann, the city's director of automated people mover systems. "We have a very close relationship with airport lost and found."
One crew inspects switches and valves that send the trains in different directions.
"Twenty-seven switches like this are inspected daily," Poerschmann says, gushing over the system like a proud father. "It's more than just a horizontal elevator."
Meanwhile, another worker shoves wooden objects between train doors — first a square stick, then a cylindrical rod. He's testing various objects to make sure the proper sensors react in case anything -- say, an arm — gets stuck in a door.
Still, Poerschmann says, the train has a reliability rate of more than 99%.
Pity the traveler who tries to walk from ticketing to Concourse F. The journey can take more than 30 minutes.
The Plane Train isn't just a passenger convenience. It means the airlines get their flights out on time, too.
"Airlines schedule their connections based on the transit time between connections," Poerschmann says. "The airport couldn't operate without the Plane Train."
'Building a brick wall' -- 9:25 a.m.
It's not even 9:30 in the morning and already the sweat is beading up on Scott Lotti's shaved head.
Lotti, 40, is a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines, hoisting bags onto a conveyor belt that sends them into the belly of a plane headed for Austin, Texas. Another ramp man in kneepads scrambles inside to stack and secure them.
"It's a game of Tetris every day," says Lotti, wearing shorts, a gray T-shirt and an orange reflector vest. "You got to kind of think of it like building a brick wall."
Once a plane pulls up to a gate, Southwest's ramp agents have about 30 minutes to unload and reload it before the plane heads off again — forcing them to work with brisk precision.
The best parts of the day are being outdoors and enjoying the easy camaraderie with crew members. The worst parts are the sudden, unexpected dangers. Lotti says one co-worker was killed when he drove a cart into a plane's propeller. Another was struck down by lightning.
Then there are the superheavy bags, the obese, leaden kind that one man can barely lift without help. Lotti has seen bags tipping the scales at more than 100 pounds — twice the weight most airlines will tolerate before punishing passengers with extra fees.
Southwest ramp agents must be able to lift 70 pounds. During the hiring process, they're asked to lift a heavy bag; if they can't, they don't get the job.
"Sometimes you wonder what people pack in these bags. You really do," he says.
The worst offenders? College students. "They've got all those books in there."
Lotti, not pictured, is a burly man and played football in high school, but like a lot of ramp agents he wears a back brace at work. He strained a disc in his back earlier this year. Other ramp agents have injured wrists, shoulders, knees.
"It's an unforgiving job if you do it wrong," he says.
Ramp agents are acutely aware that they work under the watchful gaze of passengers peering out from windows or gates.
"We live in a fishbowl," Lotti says. "We're surrounded by eyes. It keeps you on your task."
Keeping his eye on the blob -- 4:30 p.m.
It's a warm, sunny afternoon in Atlanta, but there's a problem on Fred Brennan's screens: A blob of showers is affecting airports in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities across the Northeast.
For all the sun here, that blob has been giving pilots headaches since early morning.
"It's really bogged us down," says Brennan, a meteorologist for Delta. Even though the rain is dissipating, "we're still trying to recover from it."
While Brennan keeps an eye on the Northeast, his cubicle neighbor, Bill Thull, watches Atlanta and the Midwest.
The two contribute regularly to Delta's five-day weather outlook, released every morning. Updates come every six hours and include red flags for flight paths around the world.
Their forecasts are highly detailed, predicting exactly when and where storms will occur, down to the hour.
Just a few feet away, dispatchers use the forecasts to tweak flight schedules, fuel orders and routes to avoid the upcoming weather. Delta says it's the only U.S. airline that has a meteorology staff to create its own forecasts.
Like a virus, flight delays due to the Northeastern blob spread across airports, including Atlanta.
Passengers miss their connections, and when the weather clears, the resulting traffic surge in the Northeast will create extra work at their destinations later.
Troops heading to and from battle made the airport a military crossroads. Now, it's more a spot where recruits meet before going to basic training. Their mission is the same, though: Keep America safe for citizens, immigrants and refugees — like those arriving here daily.
Carrying on a family tradition -- 8:45 a.m.
Tina Moore shouts as soon as her son steps off the escalator.
"There he is! Oh, my God!"
She bounds toward him with her daughter and stops herself from blurting out his nickname, Boo Boo.
Weeks ago, Julien left for basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, then headed to advanced training at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. Before that, the family had never been apart for more than three days.
Now her 19-year-old son is U.S. Army Pvt. Julien Keith, a trained helicopter repairman. He stands tall, straight and solemn as they snap photos in baggage claim. It's the first time he's worn his uniform in public.
His 17-year-old sister, Aisia, puts her arm around him. She's wearing a bright pink T-shirt that says "Proud Sister."
Aisia hears her mom's voice crack and teases her for getting emotional: "I knew you were going to cry."
"I was really happy," Moore says. "Seeing him in his uniform, that really got me."
The airport has seen tens of thousands of young men like him. This is a place of peace shaped by a time of war. It's where recruits with noble ideals begin their journeys, newly minted warriors head for first deployments, battle-hardened soldiers search for solace, and refugees seek safety as they start a new life — the sounds of conflict echoing in their minds.
Tina Moore served in the military, too, and she's proud her son is carrying on the family tradition. She worries about him getting hurt, but she's pushing that out of her mind.
For now she's focused on the fun they'll have for the next two weeks — the barbecues and family visits — before Julien reports to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and begins his new mission: serving his country.
'We don't know where we are' -- 12:40 p.m.
Eman Omar and Rita Sabbagh walk side by side through the airport, talking quietly in Arabic.
Omar's daughters, 11 and 12, walk a few yards in front of them.
Their names — Farah and Hiba — mean "joy" and "gift."
Farah has a nickname, too: "Mickey," given to her years ago by Americans in Iraq.
The girls are children of war, Omar says, and they have suffered greatly.
"I want to change that," she says. "They've had a hard life."
This Iraqi refugee family just arrived in Atlanta to begin a new life with the help of people like Sabbagh, a case aide with the International Rescue Committee.
Just 30 minutes ago, Sabbagh was rushing across the arrivals lobby to greet them. Omar was crying. One of her daughters was clutching a teddy bear.
"We don't know where we are," Omar, 40, said in Arabic. When Sabbagh told her they're in Atlanta, Omar burst into tears again — this time because she was so relieved to hear someone speaking her language.
"Are you going to stay with us?" she asks. Sabbagh tells her she's come to take them to their new home.
The three have been traveling for more than a day. First on a 10-hour flight from Istanbul to JFK. Then an overnight stay in a New York hotel. Then a two-hour flight to Atlanta after missing their connection at LaGuardia, where they couldn't find the security checkpoint.
They got lost again in Atlanta after getting off the plane, taking nearly 45 minutes to make it to the arrivals lobby.
Now, as they pile their six stuffed duffel bags onto a cart, global news blares from nearby TVs. The headlines are grim: World leaders are preparing for a possible military strike against Syria. Tension is bubbling over in Baghdad after a string of bombings killed 50 people.
The broadcasts are in English, a language Omar barely understands. But the stories are all too familiar.
Her husband was killed in war-torn Baghdad nearly a decade ago, when her daughters were just toddlers.
For eight years afterward, they tried to make Damascus their home. But violence from Syria's growing unrest forced them to flee.
They lived in Sakarya, Turkey, for nearly two years after that.
Omar says she brought her children to America for one reason: aman, the Arabic word for safety.
Seeing the two girls — skinny, shy and quick to smile — makes Sabbagh think back to when she immigrated to the United States from Israel with her own family decades ago. She was 16 at the time. Her brother was 2.
"That just took me back 32 years, when we came to a strange country," she says. "Now we're citizens. We never dreamed of that."
Omar smiles as she talks about how her daughters will go to school and study here, and how she wants to study, too, and learn English.
Walking outside the airport into the hot Atlanta sun, the girls start to giggle and play.
There are many good things about America, Omar says as she watches them. But the best thing, she says, is that they've arrived.
The next wave of warriors -- 5:42 p.m.
"Would you like a neck pillow?"
It's the one question Mary Lou Austin asks every recruit who walks inside the USO lounge. This is where they can get sandwiches, snacks and a chance to relax before their bus ride to basic training.
A former teacher, Austin has been helping soldiers for 45 years — ever since she noticed a USO billboard, applied for a job and got assigned to Biloxi, Mississippi, at the height of the Vietnam War.
She spent the last decade dealing with massive groups of soldiers as wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Atlanta was one of two hubs for troops going home for R&R — rest and relaxation.
The last chartered R&R flight landed here in April. It was a bittersweet day for Austin — glad to see the wars coming to an end, but sad not to be able to serve so many men and women who sacrificed so much for their country.
These days, Austin focuses on recruits.
A few dozen young men flip through magazines and kick back in living room loungers once occupied by combat soldiers. Austin will see many of them again after basic training, when they fly through Atlanta to their assigned duty stations.
She knows they will be different then — hardened and ready for battle.
Fish in a suitcase, a cow's head and a giraffe bone — oh, and don't forget the guns, bugs and drugs.
Something's fishy -- 5:54 a.m.
Etieno Etuk has a pocket full of cash, and customs officials think something's fishy.
Back from a two-week trip visiting family in Nigeria, the Houston man has a connecting flight to make at 7:25. But he has drawn the attention of Customs and Border Protection officers and finds himself in an examination station in the agency's "hard secondary" inspection area at the International Terminal.
It's all stainless steel and business, one of many places — some hidden, some in plain sight — where customs officers, Transportation Security Administration officers and airport employees spend their days searching for what's out of place, what doesn't seem right, what smells — sometimes literally.
A smartly dressed customs officer who only gives his last name — Gaud — asks Etuk to unlock his bags, two large red ones and a smaller purple bag.
"This is a lot of stuff for two weeks," Gaud says as he runs his black-gloved hands through the pockets of one bag. He pulls out a bottle and pops the lid.
"Vitamins?" he asks.
Etuk nods.
Gaud slips the bottle back into the bag, zips it closed and reaches for another piece of luggage.
It is a suitcase full of fish.
Dried, wrapped in paper and plastic. It's for soup, Etuk says.
Nothing you can't get in the States, he says. Maybe it's better. Maybe it's cheaper. He's not clear.
Etuk has been here nearly half an hour. Gaud is satisfied with Etuk's explanation for the thousands of dollars of cash in his pocket. It's less than $10,000, so he doesn't have to declare it. The officer is still searching the bags.
"This is making me late," Etuk says. "This has never happened before. I told this guy I had to catch a connecting flight. This guy tells me I can miss my flight. They're rude. They should have more people working."
But every station is staffed by officers inspecting other passengers' bags.
Gaud is not to be rushed. He clears Etuk at 6:35 a.m. -- plenty of time for the passenger, and his fish, to fly away.
A search goes bust -- 6:36 a.m.
A customs officer pulls a pair of white metal bottles from a Texas woman's luggage. One look at the label tells him this could get interesting.
A naked man is pictured embracing an equally naked woman, her breasts conveniently obscured by his cupped hands. "Macho Potenciador Sexual" the label says.
It's a Colombian aphrodisiac, but customs officers suspect it might contain something even more stimulating — narcotics.
Traveling back from a trip to Colombia on a ticket purchased recently with cash, the woman has drawn the officers' attention as a possible drug smuggler.
She's relatively small, they note, but rather busty. They wonder if she's hiding drugs in her bra.
The officer, who asks not to be identified, places a few ampules of the aphrodisiac in a plastic pouch, then crushes them. The substance comes back clean. It's nothing more than the sex aid the label claims, but officers still aren't satisfied.
"The whole story doesn't add up," says Stephen Kremer, director of Customs and Border Protection for the Atlanta port.
A female customs officer is summoned to take the passenger to a private area for a more thorough search.
It turns up nothing. She really is just busty. They clear her on to Texas.
Nigerian Versace -- 10:19 a.m.
It's a heaping pile of luxury. Items with the best brands: Hugo Boss. Kenneth Cole. Versace. Hermes. Suits and coats and jackets and purses collectively valued at many thousands of dollars.
It's all counterfeit.
A clutch of Customs and Border Protection officers stands around the clothing and accessories, which have been laid out on a crate in the main warehouse of Delta's expansive cargo facility next to the International Terminal.
The swag came in from Lagos, Nigeria -- an automatic tip-off, says one officer.
"They just don't make these items in Lagos."
Customs is a regular visitor here. Each day, officers study manifests and follow leads, keeping track of the countless goods coming in to the United States. They maintain a handful of vans with X-ray equipment, not to mention a K-9 unit to sniff out various banned, illegal or unfamiliar substances.
Although drug seizures and terrorist threats get the big headlines, some material simply violates intellectual property laws.
Looking at the counterfeit clothes, it's easy to joke about it as the sort of thing that ends up being sold on Manhattan street corners. But the damage goes far beyond a company's trademark — or the humiliation of a fashion victim whose stitching comes unraveled at the first drop of rain.
After all, a Hugo Boss suit or a Hermes bag can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars. That money ends up in some criminal pipelines, says customs Officer Gladys Summerville.
"It's one of the ways that terrorists are funding their organizations and their missions," Summerville says.